Two high school journalists who successfully opposed retaliatory censorship policy and an Illinois newspaper adviser who boldly choose to resign her post rather than work at a censored newspaper are the recipients of the annual Courage in Student Journalism Award.
The student winners are Seth Zweifler and Henry Rome, the current and immediate past editors-in-chief of Pennsylvania’s Conestoga High School newspaper, The Spoke. The faculty/administration winner is Barb Thill of Illinois’ Stevenson High School, an English teacher and former adviser of the school’s Statesman.
The awards, which will be presented at the National High School Journalism Convention on Nov. 14 in Washington, D.C., are given each year to student journalists and school officials who have demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.
The presenting sponsor is the Center for Scholastic Journalism, a program of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University. The award is co-sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.
Frank D. LoMonte, an attorney and the Executive Director of the SPLC, said Zweifler and Rome earned the honor because of their professional-caliber work and their savvy diplomatic efforts to overcome a proposed censorship policy. “These winners exemplify the sad fact of life that provocative, hard-hitting student journalism is often celebrated with retaliation,” LoMonte said. “Exemplary journalistic work was met with a crackdown by administrators who believed that the best way to deal with unpleasant disclosures about their school systems was to stop the disclosures.”
At Conestoga High School, administrators proposed mandatory prior review of all student publications after The Spoke published Rome’s news story, “Obligation to Report,” which detailed how a janitor at the local middle school was able to remain on the job despite multiple run-ins with the law, ending with his arrest on bank robbery charges. The story provided ammunition for a state legislative push to tighten criminal background check requirements for school employees.
Two weeks after the story was published in June 2009, the district school board announced plans for the new prior-review requirement, along with a new job description requiring the publications adviser remove any content deemed “offensive.” Armed with research and facts, Zweifler and Rome mounted a careful and respectful campaign to persuade the board to drop the most punitive parts of the proposed policy.
Rome, who now attends Princeton University, said the award “highlights the fact that student journalism is so valuable in a democratic society and its protection is therefore extremely important. Student journalists deserve to be able to spend months upon months investigating stories and controversial issues. Student journalists deserve the opportunity to serve their school and, indeed, their democracy.”
Zweifler said he “couldn’t be more humbled to be recognized with this honor. But this award isn’t just about us. It’s about the thousands of student journalists across the country whose voices are silenced because their school administration views the student newspaper as a public relations tool rather than a public service. It’s about informing people of the ever-growing problem of prior review, and how any form of censorship is a travesty for scholastic journalism programs.”
Thill was one of the most respected journalism educators in America when her students came under fire after the Statesman published a January 2009 package of news stories about the prevalence of casual “hooking up” relations among teens, much of it alcohol-fueled. The news stories were balanced with cautionary quotes from a school counselor and a local psychologist about the lasting damage that could result from such behavior. The package prompted the school’s principal and school board to impose a mandatory prior review policy, giving the ultimate editorial decisions to school employees and not the student journalists. Faced with a diminished program and the chill of intimidation, Thill chose to resign as journalism adviser at the end of the 2009 school year.
“When (students) decide to publish controversial content, they do so because they believe their readership community needs to be aware of the information,” Thill said. “Administrators who censor such content or intimidate students from publishing such content in effect block student readers from receiving information and thereby discussing and using that information.”
Zweifler, Rome and Thill will receive the Courage in Student Journalism Award at the National Scholastic Press Association/Journalism Education Association National Convention in Washington, D.C. The ceremony will be held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel on Nov. 14 at 3:30 p.m. before an audience of thousands of high school journalists and advisers. The student winners will share a $1,000 prize and the adviser winner will receive $1,000 to support student journalists at her school.
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.
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Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director 703.807.1904, firstname.lastname@example.org